Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Healthy Dose of Skepticism

Written by: on November 11, 2022

How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) was written as a clarion call for journalists and other professionals who regularly use numbers to report and inform the public to be more intentional in their statistical math accuracy. Tom Chivers, a science writer for UnHerd, a British news and opinion website, and his cousin, David Chivers, an economics professor at the University of Durham, U.K., co-authored the book. Tom became frustrated with the lack of integrity in how news agencies reported statistics during Covid-19, and he decided to take action.

In their book, Tom and his cousin present a case for journalists and the general public to ask more questions about the messages conveyed/consumed when using statistics or other numbers.[1] In the Data Book podcast with Dan Barnett, Tom describes how many journalists ‘cherry pick’ numbers to make headlines – even when the numbers are misleading. According to Tom, many people know they do not understand math and often wear ‘not good at math’ as a badge of honor. As a result, many people do not challenge the numbers served by reporters. However, he is adamant that we cannot have a democratic society without a literate population.[2] He is convinced that when math is broken down into simple language and given better explanations, most people can overcome their fear of math and engage more intelligently with statistics and other data points used in reporting.

There were many examples of how I could relate to the fear of math, misleading statistics, and the badge of honor from my own experiences. And the times I’ve heard the same concerns from students are too numerous to count. However, one personal experience came to mind, and it happened almost a decade ago.

Thinking about how statistics are used to mislead the public – I recalled a TED Talk by Ben Goldacre. The topic was What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe. Although Mr. Goldacre does not talk specifically about statistics or math – he does speak about the clinical trials conducted and how many times the tests are ‘cherry picked’ to present a drug in a favorable light.[3] Consequently, doctors and patients are often deceived, and in some cases, lives are lost.

Several years ago, my mother found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with early-stage cancer. She decided to undergo a mastectomy rather than worry about other potential lumps forming. After a successful surgery, my mother’s doctor wanted to prescribe a medicine for her to take indefinitely to minimize the risk of the cancer returning.

My Mother called me to ask about the medication. I did some research (fortunately, I had watched Mr. Goldacre’s TED Talk), and I discovered quite a few negative reviews and side effects associated with the proposed medicine. So, I recommended that she not take the drug. Remember, this was the earliest stage of cancer. Additionally, no other cancer was detected, and my mother was in good health for her age. So was the doctor unaware of the risks, was she trying to minimize the uncertainty (which statistics attempt to do – but can never rid us of the uncertainty), or was the doctor participating in a clinical trial and my mother was an unknowing participant? I’ll never know. But I have a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the numbers used in polls, surveys, trials, and prescription medicines.

Lastly, I commend Tom Chivers and David Chivers for identifying a problem and taking action. They highlighted some of the basic problems with how numbers are presented, and they’ve recommended the Statistical Style Guide to establish a foundation for responsible journalist. I will recommend this to instructors teaching Civics classes starting in middle school grade levels.

[1] Tom Chivers and David Chivers, How To Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them) (London: Orion Publishing Group, Ltd, 2021), 2.

[2] Data Book Podcast https://open.spotify.com/episode/6587RhkUIICncKWcpHX3Po

[3] Ben Goldacre, What doctors don’t know about the drugs they prescribe*



About the Author

Audrey Robinson

6 responses to “Healthy Dose of Skepticism”

  1. Audrey – Thank you for highlighting the usefulness of “fact checking” data using your mother’s story. I see the internet as both a blessing and a curse in this way. We certainly have so much access now to research things on our own, but we also do not always have the corresponding education or insight to always interpret things correctly. For example, using your medicine example…I suffered for over a year (unnecessarily) because I read the side effects of a medication that my doctor wanted to prescribe and refused to take it. Finally, I was so desperate that I took it and it helped me immensely. So, I believe that facts should always be balanced with experience and wisdom. Do you have thoughts about that?

  2. Audrey Robinson says:

    I agree that facts should always be balanced with experience and wisdom. I would also add a healthy dose of prayer. There was a time when I started having chronic pain in my neck and shoulders. Initially doctors could not diagnose or prescribe anything other than painkillers – which I typically do not take. So, I prayed for several months until I finally got direction in terms of what to do. I never took the pain killers – I was lead to pursue a more holistic treatment – one I still use today.

  3. Michael O'Neill says:

    Great post, Audrey. As we already discussed in another post, we share this skepticism. I can tell you from experience in pharmaceutical sales and being the husband to a doctor, the world of medicine is disgusting. I think it’s obvious to many but when you see it first hand, it can destroy someone’s faith in the system that is supposedly there to help you. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the winged staff with the snakes is often used as the logo for medicine. It’s called a Caduceus or staff of Hermes, which is an old greek symbol that has some evil history. It was often a symbol of trickery or cunning behavior, money, and communication. Not medical care or peace like some would like to believe.

    It’s a shame that we can’t trust so many powerful people and organizations. I think it’s best to continue to rely on the Spirit of God inside us. It’s the only tried and true way.

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      We are admonished to not walk by what we ‘see’ in this world.

      One of the things this requires is constant discipline and keeping our eyes on the Lord. This ties into keeping ourselves physically fit – the discipline carries over into our spiritual lives!

  4. mm Daron George says:


    I enjoyed reading your post! In your post you said “But I have a healthy dose of skepticism regarding the numbers used in polls, surveys, trials, and prescription medicines.” Does this skepticism spill over in other areas of your life? If so, how do you manage our level of skepticism?

    • Audrey Robinson says:

      Great question. I believe that we should walk circumspectly in this world because we are admonished to not go by what we see (I would add hear, read etc.).

      Given that, I constantly pray for spiritual discernment in every area. Research, gather the facts as best you can, then pray.

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